In the Closet with Laura Palmer
The first time I saw Laura Palmer I knew I had to know everything about her. I first discovered Twin Peaks in 2005 via a recommendation from a gymnastics coach…yes, I was that gay. At the time, only the first season was available on DVD. What’s more, only episodes 2 - 7 were on this box set because another company owned the rights to the pilot and had not made it available. So my first introduction to Laura was when Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman discovered a videotape of her goofing around with her friend Donna Hayward. The final shot of the tape is a closeup of Laura’s face, staring intently out at the viewer. We see Laura twice removed, from us watching our own TVs through to Cooper and Truman watching their TV. Her gaze was electric, pulling us all the way through to this past moment. From the jump we know that she was someone burdened by terrible secrets and shrouded in darkness. She was magnetic and mysterious.
I was immediately obsessed.
At this time, I was going to a high school with an extremely small student population. There were roughly fifty kids in each grade. This made me the only queer kid (that I knew of) in a school small enough for everyone to know approximately everything about everyone else’s business all the time. This made being gay tricky, something also not helped by the onset of what I would later learn was bipolar disorder (lending a frenzied edge to everything I did and felt). I was a kid with secrets. Secrets which consumed me and left me feeling completely paranoid and in total despair. So when I saw the image of Laura I couldn’t help but wonder if I was also seeing some part of myself. Obviously the scale was different. She was abused and I was not. She was addicted to drugs and preyed on by predatory men and I was not. Most pointedly, I was alive and she was not. But I was drawn to her.
There was something undeniably queer about Laura. Like so many residents of the town of Twin Peaks, there’s the face, and then there’s something behind the face. Laura has secrets, something anyone in the closet can relate to. But she’s also extreme. Liminal. The things she experienced and the choices she mades (such as they were) are ones that exist firmly outside of conventional morality. Though I had not and never would experience the particulars of Laura’s life, I felt like I experienced her isolation and transgression. My depression made me feel this keenly, intensely. She saw her secrets as an enveloping darkness, and so did I. When the discourse around gay rights still consisted of whether gays could have civil unions (marriage being far too lofty a goal) and if it was okay to fire someone just for being gay, I felt like my existence was transgressive. I felt on the outs (so to speak) in a major, precarious way.
One of Laura’s most compelling and distinctive qualities in Twin Peaks is her distance. We see her in pictures and on videotape. We hear her voice on cassette. We read her diary. People share their memories and divulge her secrets. Everyone tries to conjure up their own vision of Laura, and her loss is keenly felt. The town yearns to go back to the innocence of life prior to Laura’s murder. But as the show goes on, we see that the place of innocence we want to return to was always marked by Laura’s differences, her secrets, and the ongoing traumas of her life. In my own life I felt this longing for a non-existent innocence too. I think a lot of queer people feel, at first, that they wish they could go back to a pre-queer self-conception. But we were always queer, whether we knew it ourselves or not.
In Fire Walk With Me, this rear view is brought up startlingly close. Laura was always once removed in the show, always mediated by something, and in the movie she is uncomfortably immediate. I watched the movie dozens and dozens of times. This was something that people around me (particularly adults and those who didn’t know I was gay) found quite alarming, but for me it made complete sense. Laura was beset by evil forces which wanted to control her, possess her, and destroy her. And though the position seen by others in the world was one where she was destroyed, we see in Fire Walk With Me that she was not destroyed, but transubstantiated.
When Laura appears in the black lodge with Cooper at the end of the film and we see her smile, I was amazed. While I didn’t have supernatural entities after me, I did live in a poisonous, deeply homophobic culture. And obviously, I didn’t want to be annihilated. No one does. But when it happened to Laura, she went somewhere else. Not gone, not nothingness, though not exactly alive. Happy. Relieved. There’s more peace in her smile at the end of Fire Walk With Me than we have ever seen from her. Fire Walk With Me is unflinching and brutal. There’s no sidestepping the trauma here, and there’s no one to mediate it for us. I felt it more thoroughly throughout my being than any movie I had seen previously and I had to watch it over and over.
Maybe this was an ascetic practice (probably) — but it was oddly comforting. If Laura was deeply closeted, her arrival in the Black Lodge freed her from that. And in the world of Twin Peaks, we know that death is not always the end. When she smiles at the end of the film, I have to smile with her. Obviously the Lodge was not a purely safe haven. She still had to struggle against powerful forces. But even though she still had to struggle, she left the problems of the town of Twin Peaks behind her. When I was fifteen I was terrified at the thought of losing my past life by coming out as gay. But I learned from watching Laura that even if life looks very different, it’s still life.
In a 2018 Esquire article, Dom Nero calls Lynch “a filmmaker whose entire legacy may be defined by his strikingly intimate elucidation of emotional trauma.” I can’t help but think this has to be true. His projects are all anchored by different situations and different contexts, but there’s a heart to all of his films that invites us to share our own trauma and work it out in the artwork itself. I think for a lot of queer Twin Peaks fans, this was Laura Palmer. I would argue that anyone constricted, anyone who has a double life, a different person behind the face, could relate to her. And anyone who has ever been in the closet knows this circumstance and these feelings viscerally.
Being in the closet with Laura has always given me a sense of comfort and helped me to read her as someone whose story was about more than inter-dimensional suffering. It’s not easy comfort as hers is, after all, a story of astonishing trauma. But there’s a feeling of liberation that comes from her journey and it’s that traumatic adolescence speaks to something I think every queer person knows. And, I know that I could not have made my way to the queer pride I feel now without her help.